NEWSLETTER 496: SATURDAY 15 JULY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Oops In my review of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English last week, a typing error turned the abbreviation for interpreter into temp rather than the correct terp.
2. Turns of Phrase: Passive survivability
This term has come to the fore in the USA and elsewhere in recent months largely as a result of hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast last August. The concept is that buildings should be designed so that they can survive the loss of essential services—electricity, piped water, sewerage—in the event of a natural disaster.
It grew out of a post-hurricane reconstruction conference held in Atlanta in November 2005. This led to a set of proposals with the title The New Orleans Principles. One of these states, “Provide for passive survivability: Homes, schools, public buildings, and neighborhoods should be designed and built or rebuilt to serve as livable refuges in the event of crisis or breakdown of energy, water, and sewer systems”. Techniques include many that are also advocated by green campaigners: use natural ventilation, heavily insulate buildings against heat loss, use natural daylight, collect and store rainwater, install solar electricity generation, and so on.
Advocates point to the risk of terrorism that might lead to similar losses of public services. They also argue that possible shortages of fuel in decades to come will require buildings to use much less energy than they do now.
There is now talk among some enlightened architects of incorporating “passive survivability” into their designs—the ability of a building to operate on its own should systems such as water and electricity ever fail by, for example, using better “thermal envelopes”, natural daylighting and rainwater storage.
[Guardian, 20 Jun. 2006]
Passive-survivability measures are so important that it may make sense to incorporate them into building codes. Most, but not all, passive-survivability features will add some cost to a building, so the impact on affordability needs to be considered if such measures are to be required by code.
[HPAC Engineering, Jan. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Sponging-house
A one-time place of temporary confinement for debtors.
Here’s how it used to work: you got into debt, your creditor laid a complaint with the sheriff, the sheriff sent his bailiffs, and you were taken to the local sponging-house. This wasn’t a prison, not as such, but a private house, often the bailiff’s own home. You were held there temporarily in the hope that you could make some arrangement with your creditors. Anthony Trollope set out the system in his novel The Three Clerks of 1857:
He was taken to the sponging-house, and it was there imparted to him that he had better send for two things—first of all for money, which was by far the more desirable of the two; and secondly, for bail, which even if forthcoming was represented as being at best but a dubious advantage.
If you couldn’t sort matters out quickly you were then brought up in court and sent to a debtor’s prison. How you were ever expected to pay off your debts while incarcerated is hard to imagine, but that was the system.
Sponging-houses had a terrible reputation, which was made clear in a description by Montagu Williams, a London lawyer who surely knew them well, in his Down East and Up West of 1894:
Ah, my dear fellow, you’ve never seen a sponging-house! Ye gods—what a place! I had an apartment they were pleased to call a bedroom to myself certainly, but if I wanted to breathe the air I had to do so in a cage in the back garden—iron bars all round, and about the size of one of the beast receptacles at the Zoo. For this luxury I had to pay two guineas a day. A bottle of sherry cost a guinea, a bottle of Bass half-a-crown, and food was upon the same sort of economical tariff.
The idea of the sponging-house was based on that of the sponge that gave it its name, which readily gives up its contents on being squeezed. The sponging-house was the place where a debtor had any available cash squeezed out of him, partly to the creditor’s benefit, but also to that to the bailiff who ran it.
4. Recently noted
Rhubarb orchard I’m not sure whether this is a Sic! item or a note flagging an unusual usage. Andrew Turner was reading the label on a jar of Tesco’s Finest Champagne Rhubarb Yogurt. It was described as “Sweet and tender champagne rhubarb from selected fruit orchards blended with cream and West Country milk.” Yummy. I’d never speak of a rhubarb orchard but—as he points out—Google has a couple of examples. So what do you call a rhubarb growing ground if you don’t call it an orchard? A rhubarb field, presumably?
Wyatting A newish phenomenon in British pubs is the device dubbed the infinite jukebox, one connected to the Internet and so capable of playing tens of thousands of tracks. Some pranksters subvert the machines by choosing avant-garde tracks to disrupt the conviviality and also to stop others from playing the same pop tracks over and over. The favourite choices among the exponents of this cruel cultural warfare include Brian Eno’s ambient music Thursday Afternoon, anything by Philip Glass, and Robert Wyatt’s Dondestan, hence the name. The idea was mentioned in a New York Times article by Wendy McClure and then picked up by blogger Simon Reynolds and by others, though the name is said to have been coined by schoolteacher Carl Neville of South London, who described it as “the cowardly white muso boys anonymous attempt at provocation and civil disobedience”.
5. Questions & Answers: Believe you me
[Q] From Andrew Gerrie: “Why do people use the phrase believe you me, when they want to emphasise a point or opinion? I really don’t think it makes any sense; possibly it would be better if it were believe me you, but even that is poor English.”
[A] It’s a puzzling way of speaking because we don’t use English in that way any more. My knowledge of formal grammar being more than a bit shaky, I went for information to Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the 1800-page volume that is the standard work.
Because English doesn’t add endings to words to show how they are being used in a sentence, word order is crucially important. Today, virtually all sentences that make a statement have to be put in the order subject-verb-object (SVO): “The man pats the dog”. That makes clear who is doing what to whom. “The dog pats the man” has a quite different sense.
At one time, however, English used to allow verb-subject-object (VSO) in certain situations, mainly imperatives. The 1611 King James version of the Bible has many examples: “And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me”; “Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me”; “For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live”; and “Lay ye them in two heaps at the entering in of the gate until the morning.” And here’s G Herbert Temple in 1633: “Come ye hither all, whom wine Doth define” and another writer in 1695: “Mark ye me; that’s holy stuffe”. These days, we only see them in old writings or fossil expressions like:
Mind you, she’s very intelligent.
In every case, you or ye is the subject, but it comes after the verb it’s attached to. Believe you me belongs in this set. It seems odd to us today because English language rules forbid us to construct such expressions. We can’t naturally say “Take you care of yourself, now!” for example.
But, having said all that, an oddity is that believe you me is relatively modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1926. I’ve only been able to improve on that by six years—it turns up in the USA in 1919 as the title of a novel by Nina Wilcox Putnam. For further help here, I turned to Benjamin Zimmer, at the University of Pennsylvania, an ace at researching historical word usage. He tells me that there are earlier examples, but that nearly all of them are in verse, where the phrasing is useful for scansion. He has been able to find only three examples in prose from the nineteenth century.
What seems to have happened is that a once-standard phrase that had been lurking in the language for generations suddenly became much more popular and widespread around the 1920s. What we have here is a revitalised fossil, a semi-invented anachronism.
• Greg Payne spotted a sign on the highway in Norwalk, Connecticut: “Superman Returns Toys.” He asked himself, “Why, was he dissatisfied with them?”
• Amazon.co.uk’s review of the Steve Coogan movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story included this, to the surprise of Paul Hassett: “Nor is the versatile filmmaker a stranger to the post-modern romp, like 24 Hour Party People. In that peon to Manchester’s music scene, Steve Coogan was Factory honcho Tony Wilson.”
• “I always knew that moving up in a corporation was hard work,” Reg Brehaut e-mailed, “but now it has been documented: an editorial in Computerworld (Vol 22, No. 12) refers to their current Salary Survey results, in which ‘Every wrung of the corporate ladder is represented.’”
• Susan Gable found a comment in the Mashpee Enterprise, a newspaper based on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that may arouse an image you’d prefer to avoid at the breakfast table: “Coyotes will gladly go for food left in unsecured garbage cans and household pets.”
• Our old friend the misplaced modifier has turned up again, this time in the Netscape News Anchor Commentary last Monday about that building that collapsed in Manhattan: “There was one person inside the building at the time of the explosion, a doctor of Emergency Medicine. After spending about 90 minutes trapped in the rubble, firefighters pulled the doctor to safety.” You’ve got to admire those firefighters; even being buried doesn’t stop ‘em.
• And finally, a couple of headlines that might be errors or could be quiet jokes by bored sub-editors. Michael Keating found this one on the normally extremely sober email@example.com site: “Bruno the bear: released to the Italian Alps, meets grizzly end in Germany.” And a headline from last Monday’s Guardian: “Rare flower found on site is a plant, says developer.” [A word of explanation is perhaps needed here: a California developer claims a rare protected plant called the Sebastopol meadowfoam found on a site he is about to develop was transplanted there by opponents in order to stop him. The dispute has become known as Foamgate.]